Anxiety has plagued me ever since I immigrated to the US when I was nine. Like an imaginary friend accompanying me wherever I go, anxiety whispers questions of doubt and fear. As if on cue, anxiety strikes during hectic seasons (i.e., the holidays), new challenging tasks, or when I run into glitches on a project.
Whether anxiety comes occasionally or frequently, triggered or unprovoked, coming from things like school projects or struggles within our family, we all experience anxiety at some point. Many have written books, articles, and self-help strategies on the topic. What I offer below are simply my own reflections on how anxiety has shaped me as a follower of Christ and what’s been most helpful.
We need both immediate and long-term responses to anxiety. Taking deep breaths or repeating mantras in the moment is like using a fire extinguisher; when anxiety flares up, we can put out the flames before it grows into a fire. Developing habits that facilitate transformation is more like remodeling a home, replacing fire-sensitive materials with less flammable ones. My reflections below will focus on “remodeling” rather than “fire extinguisher” responses.
For a long time, I reprimanded myself for being anxious. If I only trusted God more, if I only had more faith, or if I was simply a better Christian. . . . At other times, my struggle with anxiety would just lead to more anxiety: What if something is seriously wrong with me? What if I need medication? What if others knew the depth of my struggles? My imaginary friend would pepper me with endless what-ifs.
Scripture tells us that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn 3:17). Seeking freedom from judgement, shame, and condemnation—my own as well as actual and perceived judgment from others—has been a process as I listen to God, wise mentors and friends, as well as scientific findings. And 1 John 4:18 tells us, “Perfect love drives out fear.” As I shift from feeling guilt, anxiety has drawn me closer to God as I embrace his love for me. Whether you’re going through final exams, work deadlines, or COVID-related stress, I invite you to meditate on God’s perfect love and invite his loving presence into your places of anxiety.
Growth & Suffering
In a class on anxiety, Nader Sahyouni, a counselor, spiritual director, and member of InterVarsity’s Spiritual Foundation Team, asked us, “Do you notice that people in ministry who have suffered have a more powerful impact on you spiritually?” Our class nodded in agreement.
It’s like what we see in 2 Corinthians 12:7–9, where Paul writes:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
Over time, I’ve come to see anxiety as a thorn in my flesh. I know that God has used suffering and thorns in our flesh to demonstrate his power in Paul and many before us. And it can help me grow in tenacity, compassion for others, and spiritual maturity—though, it’s still far from comfortable in the moment.
Is there an emotional, physical, or relational challenge that comes to mind for you? I invite you to look for a demonstration of God’s power in this “thorn.”
Joy & Gratitude
One of the best ways I’ve found to cope with anxiety long-term is gratitude. An attitude of gratitude results in joy and peace, a release from anxiety. Philippians 4:6 reminds, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
During our class, Nader also shared that there’s a reason why God paired gratitude with anxiety. There’s a scientific correlation between gratitude and peace. Gratitude brings calm, and calm enables acceptance, which then allows us to respond productively to anxiety.
I need to set up reminders on my phone to reflect on things I’m thankful for in order to remember to give thanks.
Expanding My Perspective
Stepping back to look at the bigger picture of life is like hitting the reset button on my anxiety. One way to do this is to grow in being more globally minded. It doesn’t mean minimizing or negating the stressors I’m facing, but having a global mindset gives me proper perspective.
During one of InterVarsity’s Global Urban Treks, I became close to a woman living in the slums of Bangkok. She had little more than the clothes on her back, but she was generous in every way, trusting God day by day. She opened her home and shared her food. She loved unreservedly. She and many around the world have shown me what it means to trust in God’s abundance, to look to God as our Sustainer. They remind me that I’m not in dire circumstances as many around the world are, that I’ve got it good compared to most of the world. It’s a reality check.
As I take these steps, I’m learning to embrace the things that God can teach me through anxiety. And though I have a long way to go, Jesus’ presence and companionship is slowly replacing my imaginary friend, anxiety. I know he wants to do the same for you!
Information on this web site solely reflects the opinions of the author and is provided for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute medical advice or mental health advice and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by a licensed physician, counselor, or other healthcare professional. Always speak with your physician or other healthcare professional about any mental health or medical concerns.
Currently, Eva serves as an Associate Director in the International Student Ministry department, helping all InterVarsity chapters engage with international students. You can support her ministry at donate.intervarsity.org/donate#895.
Hands tell a story. And like my granddaddy, the story of the apostle Peter is also in his hands. It’s a story of four hands in two places, and a picture of the redemption that transforms our weakest moments.
As we prepare for a new school year, I believe Jesus’ invitation for us is to see and care for these first-gen students’ unique experiences while also recognizing the agency and gifts they bring—to the campus, our ministries, the world, and the kingdom of God.